Swings and roundabouts: EU parliament votes on Snowden and Net Neutrality

Close call: the Snowden vote

Last week, the European parliament voted 286-281 to pass a resolution calling on EU member states to

drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden, grant him protection and consequently prevent extradition or rendition by third parties.

As Tom McCarthy points out in the Guardian, the European parliament has limited legislative authority and its resolution, which isn’t binding for any of the EU member states, is a symbolic gesture more than anything.

It is unlikely to affect immediate change or to have any direct impact on Snowden’s situation who has been living exile in Russia since blowing the whistle on secret US government surveillance almost 2.5 years ago.

Edward Snowden himself hailed the vote as “extraordinary” and a “game-changer”. Given that so far none of the EU member states have shown particular enthusiasm for granting Snowden asylum and in light of a history of questionable conduct by US and other authorities that tried to apprehend him, the vote may certainly come as a surprise. It is a “strong signal” that should give new impetus to campaigns demanding that Snowden be granted asylum in countries like Germany and perhaps also strengthen the position of MPs who have demanded in same.

It is certainly important that those MEPs who voted in favour recognise Snowden’s

status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender.

This might go some way to officially counteracting the rhetoric employed by Snowden’s critics, including that of the US government which once again hurried to stress that its “position has not changed… Mr Snowden is accused of leaking classified information and faces felony charges here in the United States. As such, he should be returned to the US as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process.” Failing to mention once again of course that because Snowden has been charged under the Espionage Act, he would not be able to raise a public interest defence in court.

Given the very reluctance of states like Germany to risk US disapproval over Snowden, any change in his situation or offers of asylum will probably be much longer in coming. As James Temperton writes for WIRED:

All EU member states have existing extradition treaties with the United States and it remains to be seen if any nation would be willing to waive such an agreement.

What is more, Jenna McLaughlin reports in The Intercept that

Meanwhile…heightened surveillance laws are being approved in various European countries, including France, the U.K. and the Netherlands. Just this week, the French Senate passed an international surveillance law that would allow French spy agencies to indiscriminately collect foreigners’ communications.

Which says a lot about how much value is being put on privacy and the very civil rights and Snowden sought to defend by blowing the whistle.

Riddled with loopholes: The Net-Neutrality vote

And in a different vote, the European parliament last week delivered what has been criticised as a blow to net neutrality. As the Guardian reports, MEPs “voted through new rules intended to enshrine that principle in law, but critics say they are fatally undermined by a number of loopholes which “open the door to an end to net neutrality”.

Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers should treat all online content equally without blocking or slowing down specific websites on purpose or allowing companies to pay for preferential treatment,

and it has been hotly contested for a while now.

The recent vote, according to critics, “opens the door to an end to net neutrality in Europe” which could be “potentially a disaster” for “most tech companies”. Among tech companies voicing their concern in an open letter in the run up to the vote were Etsy, Kickstater and Tumblr who are worried that the exceptions included in the legislation “jeopardise the future of the startup innovation and economic growth in the EU. They also create barriers for US startups and businesses seeking to enter the EU market”.

One example of how this threat could materialise is a loophole that allows internet service providers (ISPs) to

offer so-called “zero-rating” products — i.e. apps and services that don’t count toward monthly data allowances… Critics of the legislation say that [this] will allow big internet companies to favor certain services in commercial deals. (For example, an ISP could agree with Apple to make Apple Music “zero-rated,” leaving rival music streaming services at a disadvantage.) (my emphasis)

It isn’t that difficult to imagine how loopholes like that could negatively impact smaller services. This goes directly against the idea of net neutrality.

Thus, while

[f]or most member states this [legislation] means that, for the first time ever, net neutrality will receive some sort of protection in their country,

it is a step backward step for others. And the particular semantics of the legislation (which could be simplified as “all data is created equal, except when it isn’t” and recalls definitions of mass surveillance as something that “looks at” data rather than to simply mass collect it) potentially allow ISPs to discriminate against certain types of traffic by establishing “fast lanes” and to generally profit from the bill’s rather weak definitions that are open to a lot of interpretation. Net neutrality advocates are right to demand that these loopholes need to be closed. After all, it should tell us something that even Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, doesn’t have much praise for EU the bill.

And unlike the resolution on Snowden, the net neutrality bill is binding.

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